“There are complexities,” Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons. He was talking about the crisis in Gaza, so this was something of an understatement.
The Commons had returned from its epic conference recess, and was catching up with all the things that had happened while it had been away, like someone ploughing through the fortnight’s worth of backed-up emails that are the price of a summer holiday.
The mood in the chamber was sombre
The to-do list included the curtailment of HS2 and the dialling back of net zero targets. These were both designed as game-changing election winners, but you can gauge how successful Downing Street feels they were in that capacity from the way that the statements on them were scheduled for late on Monday evening, when they’re likely to go unnoticed. We were also going to hear about the government’s triumphant prison management policy, which has seen our jails become so popular that they’re turning people away.
First, though, we were going to discuss the situation in the Middle East. The mood in the chamber was sombre. In the public gallery there were people whose family members are still unaccounted for after last weekend’s attacks. They sat, hands over their mouths, at least one wiping away tears, as the prime minister took us through the facts: at least six British citizens among the victims of Hamas, another 10 missing, some of them feared dead. “The terrible nature of these attacks means it is proving difficult to identify many of the deceased,” Sunak said.
His was a well-judged statement with which very few anywhere in the Commons took issue. There have been complaints from British Jews in the past week that British society seems less interested in terror victims when they’re Jewish. In Parliament at least, condemnation of the attacks was vehement and universal. “We stand with the Jewish community,” Sunak said, to a loud murmur of approval.
Israel’s reaction to the attacks had left the prime minister with a second concern. “I also recognise that this is a moment of great anguish for British Muslim communities,” he said, “who are also appalled by Hamas’ actions but fearful of the response. We stand with British Muslim communities too.”
Jeremy Corbyn was absent from the chamber
This was broadly the position of most of the MPs who spoke: that Israel had the right to defend itself, but that it should do this without killing innocent Palestinians. This is, of course, much easier said than done. As many including the prime minister noted, Palestinian deaths are part of the Hamas strategy.
Keir Starmer listened to Sunak’s statement attentively, taking the occasional sip of water. He rose determined that there shouldn’t be a single point of difference between them. “Israel was the victim of terrorism on an unimaginable scale,” he began. “Hamas do not wish to see peace in the Middle East. They just want to see Israel wiped off the map.”
He took the same line as the prime minister. “I do not want Britain to be a place where Jewish schools are closed, Jewish children stay at home out of fear and Jewish families feel compelled to hide their identity,” he said. “And I do not want Britain to be a place where British Muslims feel that they have to apologise for the actions of people who do not act in their name.”
It would be naïve to pretend that no one was thinking of domestic politics in any of this. Jeremy Corbyn was absent from the chamber, which will probably have come as a disappointment on the Tory benches, but the memory of his leadership must have influenced the responses of both leaders.
It’s fair to say that Labour MPs were more likely than Tory ones to focus their questions to Sunak on the plight of Palestinians – Richard Burgon went furthest, accusing Israel of committing a “war crime” in cutting off supplies to Gaza – but there were overlapping concerns on both sides. Labour’s Tulip Siddiq asked about Jewish parents nervous of sending their children to school. Conservative Andrew Selous pleaded for the Palestinian people to be treated with “the full respect that the laws of war and civilised nations demand.”
After two hours Deputy Speaker Eleanor Laing called the discussion to an end. Many MPs still wanted to speak, but there was little left to be said. There are complexities.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe